Quite what the name Spoon River means to you probably
depends on your cultural background. For me it will forever
be associated with a piece by Percy Grainger. But for many people
Spoon River will mean Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River
Anthology, a collection of free-form poems which describe
the life of a fictional small town named for the real Spoon
River which ran near to Masters' home. Each poem is an Epitaph,
delivered by the dead person to which it refers. Masters' depictions
of small town life are masterly and mix the everyday with the
rather shocking goings-on which happen in the background.
In 2004 American composer Lita Grier set five songs. These
were followed by further settings so that the complete cycle
now runs to ten songs, each one setting one of Masters' poems.
Grier sets the songs for high soprano, second soprano, tenor
and baritone, accompanied by piano. Running to some thirty minutes
in length it is Grier's longest work to date.
Grier's career as a composer is somewhat interesting. This
disc contains songs written by her from 1955 to 2009 but this
time period is deceptive as she was silent for a long time.
Grier studied at UCLA under Roy Harris and Lukas Foss. Her early
songs and chamber music were highly praised, but she stopped
composing as she found herself out of sympathy with the prevailing
serialism of the 1960s. Perhaps also an element of prejudice
against female composers might have been present as well. But
her existing songs and chamber music had something of a life
of their own and in the mid-1990s Grier took up composing again.
The song-cycle which opens this disc, Songs for Children,
spans this period as Grier started it in 1962 and finished it
in 1999. Her style did not radically change though perhaps she
wrote with a greater degree of control, a stronger touch of
austerity. The Songs for Children set a variety of poets
and the songs certainly do not talk down to the children they
are aimed at. On this disc soprano Michelle Areyzaga brings
fine diction to the songs, emphasising the importance of the
words. Unfortunately Areyzaga's vibrato and rather mature tone
seem a trifle unsuitable for the songs and I would have preferred
a slimmer, more focused voice. But her performances are convincing
and she makes a good advocate.
Areyzaga appears on the next track, a 1972 setting of Sneezles,
the poem by A.A. Milne. This song raises some rather interesting
points. Grier's style has a rather American feel, think Copland
and Barber and though her songs have a degree of metropolitan
sophistication, the wide open plains never seem to be too far
away. So her settings of classic English texts have a rather
entrancing mix of Old World and New World.
Not everyone will like this and in the Five Songs from A
Shropshire Lad, which date from 1955, I found that the settings
of the better known poems could not drown out the more familiar
versions. There are a number of other influences here, including
a hint of American popular song! The baritone, Robert Sims,
gives the songs good commitment and a decent sense of line.
In a couple of the songs I felt that the part lay a little too
low for him.
Songs from Spoon River are impressively sung by Elizabeth
Norman, Michelle Areyzaga, Scott Ramsay, Alexander Tall and
Levi Hernandez. They create a good narrative feel and bring
out the words so that we get a real sense of the characters
addressing us. Elizabeth Norman, unfortunately seems to have
some trouble with the high tessitura of her songs and does not
always sound comfortable. Grier takes the poems at face value
and sets them seriously straight. I felt that there was sometimes
a sly, satiric undercurrent in the poems (and in Masters' depiction
of small town life) that Grier misses.
The final item on the disc is a set of choral pieces sung by
the Chicago Children's Choir. Here Grier sets poetry by Mattie
J.T. Stepanek, a young man who died in 2004 at the age of 14.
The poems are quite sophisticated and Grier's settings again
do not talk down. In fact the choir makes a surprisingly mature
sound and it was only after my first listen that I realised
that they were a children's choir.
This is an interesting disc of one of the forgotten voices
of American 20th century music. Whilst these performances are
not perfect, Grier has found a group of fine advocates and all
of the pieces receive strong, direct performances. If the alternative,
tonal pathways of late 20th century music interest you then
do try this disc.